In terms of big band jazz, the name "Hamp" might be forever connected with grinning Lionel Hampton. Yet the less well-known Johnny Hamp certainly had his moments, too. Like the night in Hershey, PA, when he became the new leader of the Kentucky Serenaders because the previous one had skipped out following a disagreement. Johnny Hamp happened to be there and offered to take over as conductor, garnering the job for keeps after just the one tryout. The group's theme song wound up being "My Old Kentucky Home," but despite that and the name Kentucky Serenaders, this new leader was born and raised in Lancaster, PA. He loved the local ballroom dancing scene, that era's equivalent of raves, and he was living it up at just such an event the night he took over leadership of the Serenaders. So goes the legend, told and retold with the basic focus that Hamp, with no background whatsoever in leading a big band, was able to take over on the spot, cold and green. According to the legend the band was already called the Kentucky Serenaders and he simply added his name in front, but a typical newspaper advertisement from the period lists the Hotel Sinton's Kentucky Entertainers under the direction of J. E. Hamp, so the exact billing was as much a process of trial and error as his conducting must have been. This group all the more had a big hit in 1926 with the dance craze tune "Black Bottom," one of the earliest songs to feature clapping recorded on the disc. The group's recording output in the '20s included songs that remain extremely evocative of the era. The 1929 record "If I Had a Talking Picture of You" makes reference to the newly developed sound technology for films. "Sunny Side Up" was a particularly popular number during the Depression, one of several American songs which expressed an all encompassing optimism. The Hamp version with vocal by Frank Luther enjoyed a revival in 1973 when it was featured in the closing scene of the movie Paper Moon.
In 1930, the Kentucky Serenaders toured England and from the next year onward recorded as Johnny Hamp & his Orchestra. The group's various lead vocalists included Frank Mumm, not a very promising name for a singer, and Walter Pontius. Hamp continued to lead bands throughout the '30s and early '40s in the United States and Europe, finally settling in Chicago for one of the big hotels as a house band. Fat, hyper, and somewhat overbearing, Hamp got further with the '20s Serenaders than any of later big bands. Still these later groups are not to be written off by any means. Listeners who like fine big band singers will know of Johnny McAfee and Jayne Whitney, both singers who got their start in Hamp bands during one of his later slumps. The bandleader is no relation to British television producer Johnny Hamp, who was responsible for some early efforts to put the Beatles on the tube.